It's Time to Anchor US-China Relations

Article excerpt

Following a volatile year that brought US-China relations to a low ebb, President Bush heads to Beijing this week in an attempt to put the relationship on a more productive path. Failure to do so could have disastrous results. A minor incident involving Taiwan, for instance, could easily escalate to military conflict. But there couldn't be a better time to anchor fragile ties between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous.

Just nine months ago, the downing of a US spy plane sank relations to a low not seen since 1996, when China lobbed "test" missiles near Taiwan. But then the events of Sept. 11 brought Washington and Beijing back together to fight against terrorism.

During the 1970s and '80s, that kind of volatility was uncommon: Relations were anchored by a common opposition to the Soviet Union. But the end of the cold war broke the ship of US-China relations adrift. It has since swung back and forth on the tides of each nation's domestic politics.

The current rapprochement remains vulnerable. Chinese security analysts are anxious that the US not exploit the campaign against terrorism to encircle China. Meanwhile, Americans worry that Beijing is using "terrorism" as an excuse to violate human rights of Muslims in northwest China.

As a first step, Mr. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin must convince their peoples that, although problems inevitably arise, common interests demand that the US and China maintain strong relations.

Second, both Beijing and Washington need to tone down their rhetoric. America is not an "imperialist aggressor," and China is not a "totalitarian tyrant." Relations among nations involve emotions and are not determined by power alone. Inflammatory words only undermine trust - already scarce - and have made one thing certain: Both sides' military establishments now talk of preparing for an eventual showdown.

Third, while President Clinton's vision of a "strategic partnership" with China had its limits, it did make Washington and Beijing willing to forge a constructive relationship. …